business science

The spider silk jacket from North Face

Outdoor brands are often some of the most progressive, presumably because their founders are outdoor people with a love and respect for nature. Patagonia is one of the most environmentally enlightened companies you could hope to encounter, and North Face also has high credentials. It was founded by businessman, conservationist and activist Doug Tompkins, who also founded the Foundation for Deep Ecology and the Conservation Land Trust.

In the early days North Face worked with Buckminster Fuller to pioneer the dome tent. They were early adopters of Gore-Tex, and this year they have another eye-catching innovation: a jacket made from fake spider silk.

spiber north face jacketWhy, you might ask, is this a good idea? Well first, spider silk is a remarkable thing. You will know this if you’ve ever run into a spider’s web. It combines the strength of steel with the flexibilty of elastic, so it’s a material that is unlike anything else for durability. It ought to be ideal for mountain gear.

Another advantage is that spider silk is a protein, not an oil based product like many of our other more robust textiles. It doesn’t need fossil fuels, so it’s a low carbon material. Neither does it have the chemical, water and land footprint of cotton.

But until very recently, a jacket actually made of spider silk would have been the stuff of fables. What’s made it possible is a process developed by a Japanese scientist by the name of Kazuhide Sekiyama. Like the milk and eggs I wrote about recently, spider silk can be synthesized by getting micro-organisms to produce the required protein ingredients, and then combining and spinning them. After 11 years of research, Sekiyama’s company Spiber is ready to take its silk to market.

North Face is selling it’s spider silk Moon Parka for $1,000 and it’s only available in Japan, so we’re not there yet. Expensive, yes, but by Spiber’s estimates they’ve already reduced the price of synthetic spider silk to 1/53,000th of what it cost when they first developed it. Like Mark Post’s $250,000 burger, the first iteration of something experimental is always going to be pricey. But you will eventually get to own things make from spider silk, if Spiber get their way. Premium outdoor gear is just the start.

As always, a high tech solution like this one doesn’t mean there’s no place for low tech clothing options too, and I’d happily wear a spider silk jacket over a nettle fibre shirt. We need every solution we can get in the transition to lower impact ways of life.

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